Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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What is the purpose of the invocation to the Muse in The Odyssey?

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This part of the epic poem functions as a sort of prayer: Homer prays to the muse of epic poetry, a daughter of Zeus named Calliope, to "Sing to him" of Odysseus, to "Launch out on his story," starting wherever she would like to begin. Homer prays for the muse's assistance in the telling of this story, and this beginning certainly helps to illustrate what an integral part of life the immortals were for the ancient Greeks. One might not sing a song, recite a poem, or even eat a meal without making some offering, verbal or otherwise, to them. Further, this section serves as a kind of prelude to the events which follow: Odysseus travels far and wide, learning, suffering, and desiring to return home. However, "he could not save [his crew] from disaster," and they are destroyed by their own "recklessness." They "devoured the cattle of the Sun" and suffer the consequences.

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If you are in 9th grade, I am assuming you are reading a retelling of The Odyssey in your literature book.

In that first section, Homer calls on the Muse of epic poetry to help him tell the story of Odysseus. A muse is like an inspiring spirit that can get into a person and help motivate them to do what it is they desire to do. For Homer, it's tell a story in the form of poetry.

Here, Homer reveals to us the purpose for telling his story, so that we can all know of the great character Odysseus' traits and how he used them. He tried to get his men back to their homeland, but the men did not always listen to their leader and this was their downfall. Already, in the invocation, we are learning about what the storyline will look like, what will ultimately happen to the men, and we learn a lesson - obeying authority might be a handy tool in life.

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What is the purpose of the invocation at the beginning of the Odyssey?

The Odyssey by Homer, as is the case with other early Greek epics, including The Iliad and Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony opens with an invocation of the Muses.

The Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, were the goddesses who were patrons of the arts, including history, dance, and poetry. Calliope, in particular, was the Muse associated with epic poetry.

The first aim of the performer in invoking the Muses was to gain their favor and ensure a good performance. Just as a farmer might offer a sacrifice to Demeter or a mariner to Poseidon, for a bard to honor the Muses was practical, asking the favor of the appropriate divine patron.

The second purpose of the invocation was to convey to the audience that the song the rhapsode would perform was not a unique, idiosyncratic composition, but rather a traditional tale, handed down over generations, gaining its authority from the divine Muses who inspired it. Rather than the poet claiming individual inspiration and credit, as a modern poet would, the ancient bards are emphasizing their role as a conduit of the divine; the Muses speak through the bard. 

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